Catherine MacDonald

Things I Didn't Know I Loved
                            after Nazim Hikmet

Always, winter
especially when my children were small
     5:30 sunset
     dinner done
the day’s business over early
my nestlings all in
a mercy, a clemency

all of us gathered
against the tuneless wind

Even the wind
     I loved it
in sun or when it pushed me back
from where I would go
the slap slap of curtains against shuddering glass
the window’s liquid translation of leaf & branch

I didn’t know I loved the camellia
trellised against an old brick wall
until I touched it
     after loss
     in grief
both of us warming in late winter sun
blossoms of crimson & yolk-gold
this evergreen planted
where a forest once was

I didn’t know how I loved the birds
     uncountable
     bound in untranslatable flocks
even the dark noisy ones
crackling the boxwood
planted too close to the house
until one summer morning
after a pointless fight with someone I loved
I saw a goldfinch at the coneflower
& like a thousand times a thousand before
I am forgiven & can forgive

I always knew I loved the night
to let fractious, sparking day dissolve
though I never knew until now
how I feared to love
its depth
the plunge
the disappear

~~

 

In Vermont

After hours asleep
in someone else’s bed,
I felt it, as if another body
had nudged mine
awake, and then I counted
three screams, spondaic,
searing, and womanish.

I would like to tell you
I rose in the dark,
stood at the open window
and parted the curtains,
that I sought and found you—
Vulpes vulpes, the red fox—
fur-coated, black-footed—
caught in the silver spill
of ordinary moonlight.

O, sleep thief, velvet
rustler, I did not rise and cross
the floor to find you,
preferring the tossed bed,
my eyes stitched shut,
like that of one struck
and without defense,
though the throat-smoke of your scream
fills my room now
in faraway Virginia
as I sidestep through time
toward you.

~~

Brood

Mrs. Kronberg let her children’s minds alone. 
She did not pry into their thoughts or nag them.
—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

Bedeviled by furtive wasps
but uncomplaining, my son slept

in his attic room that summer
like an infant or an old dog.

The first wisps of beard blurred
his chin, a man’s nose

spread across his pimpled face,
and his feet grew strange, and larger,

after each nap. We left him alone
because it is hard to grow old,

and we were engrossed in it.
The yard’s growth, too, absorbed us—

new grass, buds, churning shrouds
of gnats and mosquitoes, the mixed

flocks of birds, arriving or departing—
who can say?—and we looked

away from the boy. Through narrow
gaps in plaster and lathe, the wasps

found him in the dim tangle of his space,
where he hid from math and letters,

from his father and me. Cradled
in lattice and louvers, the wasps

flickered, my brooding boy
their bait and lure.

~~

Digital Intelligence

Late summer, my son brings me
       the stunned hummingbird

he found while cutting grass. Needle-
       beaked, its split-tongue once

wet and sweet after each brief
       buss of the blank, bright hibiscus;

now its heartbeats and wing-beats
       are nearly stilled. We consider it

together in the kitchen,
       its likely collision with a window,

while from my son’s dangling
       ear-buds a podcast murmurs.

Its subject, he tells me, are Japanese
       suicide pacts.

A young host translates
       the final notes—

On this day
       I will execute

Promise me
       you’ll miss me

Promise me
       you’ll wonder—

each message delivered via email
       from Tokyo,

where the subway platforms,
       are lined with steel mirrors

reminding each
       rider, solo, plugged in,

You are here,
       think again,
don’t jump,
       think again.

You are here.
       And I have been listening

in the kitchen
       to breaking news

of a desert conflict, continents away,
       where texts arrive hourly

on small screens, each message
       terse, unsigned:

Hello. This is the XXX Army.
       The next phase will arrive.

Move away—
       move away.

Each recipient
       pushed against

hardened borders
       or forced underground

or, like disordered flocks,
      driven to sudden flight.

But for now my son and I search
      the web. We type,

“save a wild bird,” then “hummingbird hurt,”
       and find this guide to rehabilitation:

Mark a small box with a compass rose. Color it gold
like the sun the bird chases. Line the box with pale tissues 
shaped by hand into trumpet-flowers. Brew a clear nectar
of boiled water and simple sugar. Through a small dropper,
one suitable for an infant or the very ill, feed the bird,
taking good care not to drown it with your ardor to succor
and revive—and remember, if you succeed, never release
a hummingbird at night.

~~

Suburban Weed Society

"…as one looks across its sun-scorched expanse, one perceives 
its lack of charm is explained by a lack of shade."
—Edith Wharton, Italian Villas and Their Gardens

Where curly dock and dandelion now bluster
       in sun, my friend Elizabeth and I dig in.

Hurricane Fran has cracked a dozen
       long pines across the lawn, and crews

have hauled logs, chain-sawn and tacky
       with resin, to the cul-de-sac curb.

What was once shade is day-lit, weed-
       choked. Though the camellias are crushed

and the patio cleft, the ground now says,
       Yes   Yes

to buckhorn and wild sorrel,
       fringe tree and hop-clove. In a month

my sister plans to marry here, so expert
       Elizabeth, with gloves, shovel, and ax

has come, surveyed the ground, swears,
       The Queen Anne’s lace must go.

In this my last season in this house, this city,
       I have seen how each year blows past

and how with its gear and grin,
       the future upends us all. And so we bend

to old suitors, to work and worry:
       my wild-anxious son, Elizabeth’s daughter,

wheelchair-bound, who waits to be lifted
       again and again into the Dodge Caravan,

and today this yard, rioting, stripped to bone,
       knuckling under to our brief keeping.

~~

 

Author’s Note

Confession: I am an epigraph addict. Two of my poems in this issue of Parhelion include epigraphs, one from Edith Wharton and one from Willa Cather, writers who have been part of my reading life for decades. A third poem is written “after” Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”—my (self-)conscious riff on work I admire. I wear Hikmet’s influence on my sleeve, so to speak, by titling my poem “after” his. Frankly, it was all I could do not to begin this short essay with fine words from some other writer whose lines I have gathered and savored. Which is to say that before I ever wrote poetry, I read a lot and continue to read a lot—fiction, narrative and natural histories, memoir, and biography—in order to find my way to and through the poems I want to write. I think of all this reading-to-write as a writer’s version of imprimatura, which is the painter’s practice of applying a translucent veil of color to a surface before painting on it.

Often epigraph follows draft, but occasionally an epigraph is in mind as I begin writing, and thus it may influence my decisions about structure, tone, deployment of voice, point of view, and other issues that arise as I draft. Sometimes the epigraph is something to write against, offering a kind of isometric exercise for the mind. The decision to include an epigraph always makes me ask, Can the poem stand beside this excellent language that is not its own? Can it bear the weight of its epigraph?

I hope that epigraphs and other types of borrowings ease the reader’s entry into a poem and even instruct, slant-wise, on how to read it. As a poet, I am interested in compressed narrative (often grounded in fragmented memory), clear (and memorable) imagery that is worked and deepened throughout a poem, musical phrasing, and formal structures that serve but do not distract. My poems are often grounded in dramatic scenes, natural images, and, I hope, musical phrasing. Source material may be something I’ve witnessed, experienced, overheard, or wholly invented and then rendered in the poem. I admire poets who can write about complexity—events, emotions, or ideas—without being murky or incomprehensible, and so I hope that my poems speak clearly. Poems can be a tough sell. The epigraph, whether as revelation of influence or a type of gentle instruction, is part of making the poem open up for a reader through its intermingling of texts and a glimpse into the reading-writing process that helped create the poem.

~~~

Catherine MacDonald

Catherine MacDonald is the author of the poetry collection Rousing the Machinery (University of Arkansas Press, 2012), winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize. She is also the author of a chapbook of poetry, How to Leave Home (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Sou’wester, Crab Orchard Review, Cortland Review, and elsewhere.

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